1976’s 600 was the first affordable Nak. Being a cassette deck, few took it seriously at the time but those who did get to hear it, heard something seriously unexpected. Instead of Compact Cassette’s trademark broken, cracked, muffled warble, real music flowed forth from its bespoke record/replay head. Music that sounded big, bold, confident, smooth, relaxed, subtle, engaging. It was tape Jim, but not as we knew it…
The formula worked, and all Nakamichi did from then on was more of the same but better, and rival manufacturers followed on, one to two years later – often failing spectacularly in their execution of the technology. Three head transports followed, then multi motor transports, metal tape facility, full logic control and automatic bias and record EQ calibration, then quartz locked direct drive capstans. In 1983 the ZX-9 was the first true ‘super Nak’, offering breaktaking sound which challenged open reel on its own terms (given a top quality metal tape and a following wind), and then some four years later, the CR-7E appeared and the writing was finally on the wall for open reel…
Hi-fi hacks wax lyrical about Japanese ‘battleship build’, but in this sense the CR-7E is a disappointment. It weighs a mere 9kg rather than 29kg, and although largish can’t hold a candle to any late seventies Sony or Pioneer in the size stakes. Nor does it drip with features, although the CR-7E is certainly ‘better endowed’ than most of its stable mates. In truth, what you get is a very well screwed together black box with a surprisingly flimsy pressed steel wrap casing. Most of the weight comes from the baseplate and the mech, with its full complement of motors, including one quartz locked brushless slotless coreless direct drive servo motor for the capstan drive, one DC reel motor, one DC cam drive motor and one DC motor for the playback head azimuth control (more of which later).
This drive system, aligned like no other, added to its three Nakamichi-manufactured (not OEM) heads is essentially the beginning, middle and end of why the CR-7E sounds like it does. It’s not rocket science, more a case of doing things properly, with no interference from the marketing men or accountancy department. The specifications say it all: 20-20kHz (-2dB), 0.027% WRMS wow and flutter and 66dB signal to noise ratio. There are other high end Jap superdecks which equal this on paper, but the reason they never sound as good is surely the CR-7E’s supreme audio electronics; quieter and more transparent than even the great ZX-9; the latter’s sound dry and clinical in comparison.
The CR-7E has an automatic bias, equalisation and azimuth set up system; press the button and it goes through a ten second cycle of auto alignment to the tape in question, and from then on you know you’re getting the best out of the cassette. There’s also a user-adjustable azimuth control – one twiddle will change it (and the FL display switches over to a graphical representation) to give perfect playback on any tape recorded on any other deck (often with slightly different azimuth due to misalignment). These are the Nak’s only two concessions to gadgetry, and you couldn’t get any more useful than these.
Suitably set up, the top Nakamichi sounds superb. Even running bog-standard TDK AD, the CR-7E records clean up to +8dB, which is a stunning feat by any Compact Cassette standards. It’s a breeze to bias the machine to any tape, whereupon the Nak simply gets down to the business of extracting the best performance from it. The sound is remarkably open and spacious and dimensional. It’s detailed and smooth across the midband and treble, yet strong and articulate in the bass. With Dolby B switched out, you really get the best from any cassette, but be sure to ramp the levels up as high as you can get them to keep hiss at bay – in practice, it’s the very slight ‘layer’ of hiss that reminds you you’re not listening to the source, that’s all.
As you might expect, prices are high – expect to up to £1,000 for the very best, fully serviced example and half that for a shabby one. It’s the finest sounding Nakamichi to my ears, although lacks the sense of occasion of the Dragon, or even the ZX-9 which is a far more glamorous looking affair. If you’re a cassette fan, only an extremely well set-up, low-use, mid-period Sony WM-D6C Walkman Professional comes close.